Will you be bowled over by these Sunderland tenpin memories?

Strike! We’re turning our minds back to 1970 and memories of a sport which will hopefully have you bowled over.

Thursday, 2nd May 2019, 11:00 am
Tony Andrew checks that the machinery is working smoothly.

We’re talking about ten pin bowling at the Mecca Bowl in Sunderland and it was all the rage around 50 years ago.

The Sunderland Echo carried a two-page feature on just how big ten pin bowling was at the time.

Margaret Charlton at the control panel.

It told how there were dozens of leagues ‘not only for the casual users looking for something new in pastimes but also for dedicated sports people.

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“Twenty-two leagues use the facilities there on various weekday evenings, some starting at about 5.30pm and others not until 10.30pm.”

Each lane cost between £8,000 and £10,000 and there were 32 lanes there which represented an expenditure of about £300,000.

Staff at the bowl were part-time and most of them were bowlers too. “All of them enjoy their work,” said the Echo report.

“Evidence of this is the unusually low turnover of staff. They choose to work at night and know what it involves.”

Some of those staff were the backroom team who were there quick as a flash when one of the machines jammed.

That only happened, on average, once every 100 frames.

While customers had a night of fun on the alleys, a team of people and an intricate set-up kept them happy.

“Behind the lanes,” said our reporter, “are some remarkably complicated pieces of machinery and taking care of them on a rota basis are three mechanics - three of a couple of dozen people whose job is to cater for the night-time leisure of thousands of Wearsiders in the bowling alley.

Tony Pontin was the manager at the time and said: “I knew what I was letting myself in for and have adjusted to working late nights.”

The bowl stayed open until 2am on Friday and Saturdays and closed on midnights on other days of the week. Tony rarely got home until at least an hour after closing.

Both he and his wife were keen bowlers and he said: “On Wednesday, we play for one of the 22 leagues which operate throughout the week.”

Tony added: “If I see all 32 lanes being used and people waiting to bowl then I am pleased to have done my job.”

One member of staff that bowlers got to see a lot of was Tony Andrew – even though it may only be his foot you saw.

After all, it was that foot which often came into view when an alley was blocked – and usually managed to clear the lane.

Tony had worked there for four years and said at the time: “I trained on bowling machines and if you can get to know them, you can work on anything.”

Most of his night was taken up with watching and checking the machines behind the lanes which collect the fallen pins, re-set them and then the lane is ready to use again. “For such complex pieces of machinery, there are rarely any faults,” said Tony.

“While Tony was behind the scenes, Margaret Charlton was right at the centre of things front of stage.

She was the control clerk who controlled the games while they were in progress.

She said: “I usually work three nights a week and don’t think I could ever enjoy a nine-to-five job.

“There is always plenty to do and if I was out at night I would only be spending money anyway so this job helps me save,” she said back in 1970.

Games ordinarily lasted ten frames per person and the number of games was marked above the corresponding lane window.

Once the games which had been paid for were finished, the window would light up and Miss Charlton could speak on an internal radio direct to the bowlers on the lane.

The Echo report added: “Continuous music helps to create the right atmosphere.

“And as the evening’s bowling ends, the staff have one thing in common. They have enjoyed their night’s work.”

What are your memories of a trip to the Mecca Bowl. Get in touch and share your reflections.

Email chris.cordner@jpimedia.co.uk. We would love to hear from you.